Plotting a path through the COVID pandemic: The trials and tribulations of travel marketing

From airlines to travel agents, cruise lines to hoteliers and tour operators to car hire firms, the travel sector has been pulverised by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mumbrella's Steve Jones takes an in-depth look at those at the forefront of the industry and how they are faring 12 months after the storm hit.

In February 2020, our last full month of unrestrained liberty, when we boarded aircraft with carefree abandon, and went cheek by jowl to grab bags from overhead lockers, more than 1.5 million people arrived in Australia by air.

A further 1.3 million departed, a combination of overseas visitors heading home and Australians bound for business meetings and foreign holidays.

Twelve months later, in February 2021, a shade over 22,000 arrived at largely deserted airports, and fewer than 30,000 departed, a grand total, to be precise, of 51,613.

They are figures that have sent companies to the wall, with plenty of others sailing close to the wind.

Yet amid the COVID carnage, the rebuilding process is underway, slowly.

The opening of the two-way travel bubble with New Zealand in April – maddeningly glacial in its creation (the first quarantine travel from New Zealand to Australia commenced in October 2020) – coupled with rising demand for domestic trips is providing at least some respite for the beleaguered sector. Other travel bubbles have been mooted, Singapore most likely the first although Fiji has also flagged the concept.

But how do you market to a consumer traumatised by a global pandemic that is a long way from being subdued? It was the very movement of people across state borders, across countries, regions and continents that ultimately spread COVID to all corners of the planet in the first place. And now, for its very survival, the industry must encourage people to again tap into their globetrotting instincts.

In truth, globetrotting in its truest sense remains some way off. Tasman-style bubbles, or travel corridors, may open up one-by-one, but wider freedom of movement will be curtained for some while longer, particularly given Australia’s comparatively slow vaccine roll out.

For Tourism Australia and state tourism bodies, the long-term closure of international borders has seen the marketing battleground focused squarely on the domestic market and, since April 19, New Zealand.

But not only must marketers sell the unique qualities of a destination or product, they must now tackle a raft of issues, concerns and consumer considerations never before encountered.

Key among them during the initial months of the pandemic was COVID itself. The fear of contracting the invidious virus was all-consuming.

While that remains the prevailing barrier in parts of the world still ravaged by COVID, Australia’s relative success in suppressing its spread has demoted that fear. It remains a consideration, but is no longer the primary one.

Of greater concern, according to marketers, is the threat of snap lockdowns, border closures and the resulting inconvenience of government-imposed quarantine.

That is borne out by Tourism Australia’s own rolling travel sentiment data.

Susan Coghill

Tourism Australia CMO Susan Coghill: our job is to inspire

“Towards the end of last year and the start of 2021 we saw consumer concerns shift from ‘am I going to get sick from the virus’ to ‘am I going to get caught out by the state borders,” Tourism Australia chief marketing officer Susan Coghill says. “The key concern for consumers now is whether they’ll get stuck in another state, or whether they’ll invest in a holiday and not be able to travel and not be able to change their plans.”

It is a daily threat that marketers are powerless to control, as witnessed by the snap lockdown in Perth last month which disrupted both domestic travel and flights to New Zealand.

Coghill acknowledged the reality that marketing can only do so much. The lockdown challenge may be keenly felt by brands and destinations, but they cannot control the vagaries of a pandemic, or, for that matter, the kneejerk reaction of state premiers that has often characterised the open-close lockdown saga.

“We can’t control it and nor is it our job to try and solve that,” Coghill says. “Our job is to encourage Australians to continue to plan and book holidays and to inspire them.”

Brent Hill, executive director of marketing at the South Australia Tourism Commission (SATC), echoed the sentiments. “Fingers crossed the border closures are behind us, and I would dearly love to have a campaign saying our government guarantees that it won’t order a snap lockdown. But clearly we can’t do that,” he laments.

Such uncertainty has become an unavoidable fact of pandemic life. Planning future marketing activity has resembled a game of cat and mouse with the virus, with few marketers spared the soul-sapping disruption inflicted by a COVID-riddled wrecking ball. If ever the business-speak buzz words of agile, nimble and flexible were appropriate, it is now.

“If you look at domestic events, as a team we have become nimble as situations have changed and markets closed,” Hill says. “Agencies and media partners have also been very responsive. Everyone knows so many things can change.

“A number of times we produced work that had to be shelved or put on hold, but that’s been part and parcel of dealing with COVID.”

It is a common theme among marketers, who have chopped and changed, tweaked, repositioned and ripped up ideas as borders opened and closed.

According to Douglas Nicol, partner at independent agency The Works, which lists Destination New South Wales among its clients, marketers must “war game” various scenarios.

Douglas Nicol

“Brands and agencies must consider what might the PM do, what might the state premiers do, what might happen internationally, what technology will offer in terms of immunity passports and certificates. It’s difficult but you try your best to scenario plan.”

The result of such a working environment, says Nicol, has forced clients from all industry sectors to become more flexible, less bureaucratic and to make quicker decisions.

“And I think that’s been a real positive because it’s the world we live in,” he said. “Regardless of the global pandemic you need to be nimble, you need to be fast. There has been a more collaborative approach, a faster approach with a smaller number of decision-makers. It’s been good for the client-agency relationship because you’ve been in this together, and become friends through that process.”

Furthermore, an unlikely travel influencer has emerged during COVID, he adds.

“It used to be the beautiful people on Instagram, now it’s the Prime Minister who is the biggest travel influencer in Australia.”

M&C Saatchi senior strategy director Vanessa Graham, strategic lead on the agency’s Tourism Australia account, agreed that while COVID created unique pressures, it produced a “tighter relationship” with its client.

The agency had learned to “sprint,” she adds.

“You need a closer relationship due to that speed to market,” Graham explains. “It’s not about having a perfect plan that’s set in stone. That world is gone. But you need speed and flexibility. That said, it’s also important not to give up on the big ideas and big thinking in the longer term. You still need that for brand building.”

While marketers may be powerless to control snap border closures and lockdowns, travel companies have sought to rebuild consumer confidence and reduce travel anxiety in other ways.

Operators have focused on promoting flexible booking conditions – an imperative in such a volatile market – while health and hygiene has also become a major feature.

Rebuilding consumer confidence

When the Tasman bubble finally opened last month after a number of earlier false starts, Air New Zealand hauled Dave the Goose out of government-imposed temporary retirement.

In a reunion-themed campaign, the Bryan Brown-voiced bird was reunited with Pete the Kiwi, a character usually found trotting through Air New Zealand’s ads in the US. Radio and social executions also wished everyone a ‘happy reunion day’.

But embedded within all the airline’s communications are messages of reassurance, Air New Zealand Australia general manager Kathryn Robertson says. It is a theme made all the more pertinent following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s ‘buyer beware’ warning as the travel bubble opened.

“The PM sent a clear message that if you travel [to NZ] you’re on your own and you have to take the risk [of travel restrictions],” Robertson says. “That wasn’t great for Air New Zealand from a customer confidence point of view. But with all our communications we are making sure we have a layer of support that says ‘trust us’, we have a flexibility booking policy.

“We are also dialling up the health and safety aspect. Crew and passengers are wearing masks to give people comfort and illustrate that flying is a bit different to what it was. We don’t want people to be shocked when they fly or go through the airport. We are very aware the customer confidence piece remains an important factor.”

With an Air New Zealand tracking report finding 51% of Australians are worried about another COVID outbreak and being stranded away from home, such reassurance is clearly not misplaced.

The Works’ Douglas Nicol, who helped Avis establish a market-leading reputation for safety, suggested operators should use PR and social channels to create “hygiene theatre”.

“The ground zero of hygiene is the TV remote which is a festering mass of bacteria. Imagine if that remote was presented in a sealed, sanitised container in the same way equipment is kept in a dentists’ surgery,” he says. “Hygiene is confidence and you are signalling it’s safe.

“I’m seeing a lot of travel advertising that hardly mentions the pandemic. There is no point ignoring COVID so why not put some theatre around it?”

Falling into the theatre category is Ovolo Hotel’s OC/DC initiative – Obsessive Commitment to Deep Cleaning – which saw the boutique operator draw up ten health and hygiene rules with a musical bent. Number one was The Police track Don’t Stand So Close To Me which stated: “Though not the preference (hugs are definitely preferred), all staff will remain 1.5 metres away for the guest’s comfort”.

Group director of marketing Stephen Howard says it was about presenting a serious message with a light touch “and bringing a smile to people’s faces”.

“It’s about being innovative and fortunately we have a CEO who likes to move quickly,” he says. “We felt it was important not to stay quiet during these challenging times, but to connect with people and come up with new ideas we could push through below the line channels.”

The next Ovolo marketing initiative, an extension of its Friends With Benefits discount offer, launched on 3 May and will allow guests to bring a friend to the hotel for its free-drinks social hour.

Such innovation has the potential to drive word-of-mouth endorsements, a marketing tool particularly craved by cruise lines as they seek to attract new customers to a sector beset by specific challenges.

Ryan Taibel, vice president of sales and marketing for Carnival Australia’s P&O Cruises and Cunard brands, recognised the importance of cruising advocates in spreading goodwill but admitted there was “no silver bullet” in winning the trust of a new-to-cruise market still scarred by COVID.

“We’ll continue to push the traditional messaging of value for money and the ‘pack and unpack once’ convenience of cruising, but we’ll also stress the flexibility and peace of mind that the P&O Assurance (cancellation and deferral) policy delivers along with finding appropriate ways of promoting healthy cruising protocols,” Taibel says “Ultimately we believe the new-to-cruise market will continue to fuel the industry’s growth down the road.”

Confidence will also increase as the vaccination program rolls out more widely, he adds.

While not perhaps directing the hygiene theatre suggested by Nicol, Tourism and Events Queensland (TEQ) has taken action to reassure consumers through its ‘Good to Go’ messaging.

Among the measures is the creation of the Good to Go ‘stamp’ for industry and partners to display across their own marketing initiatives, explains marketing group executive Michael Branagh.

“To apply the stamp, operators must be open, ready to welcome guests and have a COVID safe plan in place. This sends a strong signal to travellers that our industry is committed to COVID safe practices,” he says.

In another move to provide reassurance to potential holidaymakers, the latest iteration of the campaign highlights flexible booking options and safety.

According to Branagh, the uncharted territory of COVID has forced TEQ to adopt a “new way of working”.

“This has involved shifting our campaign media planning and buying, often at very short notice, making sure we are choosing the right channels and also working with partners that allow for flexibility should border restrictions quickly change,” he says.

Hotel firm Accor, which operates almost 400 properties in Australia and the Pacific, adopted a similar theme through a campaign called ‘It’s All Good’, which saw the creation of an ‘All Safe’ label to underline new health and hygiene protocols. Marketing assets also flagged its flexible cancellation policy, while offering loyalty members enhanced rewards.

But while the need to instil confidence to a COVID-wary, and COVID-weary consumer is clear, travel marketing must not lose sight of its role of selling experiences, Accor chief commercial officer Renae Trimble explains.

“Consumers desperately want to travel and they still want those experiences,” she tells Mumbrella. “Initial thoughts are based around safety and ‘will we get our money back’, but that quickly turns into what experiences they are looking for and what they want to get out of the experience. The consumer considerations between the practicalities of travel and the experience they are after are a very close first and second.”

Selling the dream

Yet as critical as the practical messaging has become, the need to “sell the dream” with evocative and creative imagery is more important than ever for an industry deprived of free-spending international visitors.

Not only has the pool of available tourists shrunk to those living locally, such home-grown and close-to-home tourists spend a fraction of the amount forked out by overseas visitors seeking an archetypal Down Under experience.

Figures from Tourism Australia revealed the international tourist spends an average of $5,210 on a holiday in Australia. Domestic travellers spent a paltry $690.

The task of fronting the domestic, and now NZ push, for Tourism Australia was handed to Hamish Blake and Zoe Foster-Blake.

Under the Holiday Here This Year platform – originally launched to show solidarity to a local tourism industry battered by the bushfires – the initial plan in mid-2020 had been to send the couple on a mammoth road trip. In true COVID-style, the Melbourne lockdown obliterated those carefully crafted plans, leaving the duo to plan their trip over zoom.

“That was a learning curve for all of us,” Tourism Australia CMO Coghill says of the need to hastily rethink the campaign.

In collaboration with M&C Saatchi, Tourism Australia has since brought various iterations of the Holiday Here campaign to market. The latest, again featuring the Blakes, will launch on 6 May with a multi-channel push focusing on  ‘epic trips’ of the kind usually taken by international visitors.

Graham, from M&C Saatchi says the aim is been to encourage Australians “to travel in Australia in a way they haven’t before”.

Expanding on the approach, Coghill tells Mumbrella: “Our domestic strategy has been to get Australians to travel more like international travellers, and that means going further, staying longer, doing more and spending more. It means having experiences.

“We look at it as a bit of a ‘market failure’ strategy. Where are the gaps left by international visitors?”

Among those gaps are in cities – “they are really hurting”, Coghill observed – and “further flung” destinations such as Kakadu which are feeling the absence of overseas tourists more acutely than most.

Kakadu and a host of other iconic destinations will feature in the new campaign.

“These destinations are on the bucket list of Australians but aren’t necessarily on the next to-do list,” Coghill said.

In a market where consumers are eyeing new cars or home renovations, the campaign will aim to elevate an experience-packed domestic holiday to the top of a consumer’s wish list, Coghill said.

Since the border lockdown, Tourism Australia has continued to chip away internationally, ensuring it remains active through its own channels and via content and trade partnerships. “The worst thing we could do is go quiet,” Coghill says. “We want to stay in people’s consideration set and make sure we are building the brand and creating those memory structures.”

Vanessa Graham

Additionally, behind-the-scenes work is underway to prepare for any travel corridors that may open and, more broadly, for what M&C’s Graham describes as the “grand reopening to the world”.

“We’re looking for ways to breathe new meaning and relevance into There’s Nothing Like Australia in a post-Covid world,” she tells Mumbrella.

Quite what that will look after is unclear, but both Coghill and Graham insisted its wide-open spaces and relative isolation is likely to play into Australia’s hands when global travel resumes.

“We’re also finding that people will be prepared to travel that bit further, stay longer and will be prepared to invest in that holiday they’ve missed out on,” Graham adds.

Another STO soon to launch a major domestic crusade is South Australia, with a “large scale” Australia-wide campaign beginning in May, complete with 60-second TV spot.

The above-the-line push, carrying the strapline ‘for those who want a little more’, follows a lengthy period of largely social marketing, including the lauded SATV.

“We haven’t been able to put out a branded piece that really brings eyes to South Australia,” says SATC’s Brent Hill. “We’re keen to position the state as a place that’s different, somewhere if you’re looking for a little more.”

Hill, who says the campaign details remain under wraps, said it was time to be bold in what has become “an exceptionally competitive world”.

“Our state tourism industry has been fighting for its life for 12 months so every state is competing for the New Zealand, as well as the domestic tourist. We can’t afford to sit back and do a bog standard campaign. We need to do something that forces people to look at South Australia.”

Hardhat co-founder Dan Monheit, who saw airline client Tigerair shut down by its Virgin Australia parent amid the pandemic, said it was “100%” the right time for domestic travel marketers to be bold.

“There are 27 million people locked on the island and they can only go to one place,” he said. “They have never had the odds better stacked in their favour as now. Pre-COVID they were competing with every international destination. Now they are only competing with Australian states.”

All geared up but nowhere to go

While domestic and trans-Tasman travel is showing encouraging signs of life, international travel remains in a frustrating deep freeze.

Unsurprisingly, local companies marketing international holidays to Australians or those selling local tours and destinations to overseas punters, largely switched off paid media strategies when Scott Morrison first shut the borders in March last year.

Instead they relied almost exclusively on owned and earned channels to retain a market presence. Little has changed.

Nevertheless, strategies are in place for when the Australian Government finally lifts restrictions.

James Thornton, chief executive of adventure operator Intrepid, says: “We had our New Zealand work ready and prepared for a couple of months, and we’ve done the same for Singapore, Japan and Korea. As any good marketer knows, you’ve got to move very quickly. It’s about trying to predict where things may be heading and building assets accordingly.

“But there is also an operational challenge. You can do great marketing but you also have to be able to deliver operationally on the ground.”

Thornton says Intrepid has continued its purpose-driven marketing around events such as Earth Day and International Women’s Day, and maintained an approach to storytelling. But with customers holding travel credits worth $43 million from cancelled holidays, a change in focus has inevitably taken place.

“Ultimately we have less people and are investing less money in our marketing,” he says. “The investment we have is not so much about acquiring new customers but retaining existing passengers making sure they return to us.”

The same cannot be said of Viking Cruises which has been one of the relatively few companies to advertise consistently during COVID as it chases new business. Even on a reduced budget, the firm maintained a commitment to print in particular and has now upped its spend as consumers show a desire to book cruises in 2022 and beyond.

The decision to continue its above the line marketing was partly to show support for its media partners, New Corp included, but primarily to achieve cut through and drive awareness in a quiet market, its general manager of marketing and communications Jane Moggridge says.

“In print, it gives us a great share of voice. The travel supplements were sometimes only eight pages so it gave us the ability to stand out in what is usually a cluttered market,” she says. “It was long term strategy. If we maintained our presence during a period when people were more likely to see us, when borders do reopen we’ll be front of mind.”

A brand tracker study examining brand recall suggested the strategy was working, Moggridge adds. “Since January our marketing has been 100% itinerary led. We feel there is simmering pent-up demand but consumers have not yet had the news [on borders] that has tipped them into booking. When that happens we feel the phones will ring off the hook.”

South Australia’s Hill described its strategy as “keeping the lights on” in international markets, through engagement with its database and “the odd bit of PR”.

“One of the things we quickly realised was the benefit of having built an audience we could talk to,” he says. “We are a long way from not doing any paid marketing – that is the holy grail – but the percentage of organic verses paid continues to go up and that’s something I’m excited about.”

Engaging with databases and loyalty scheme members has been the go-to, low cost strategy for many marketers in a world of zero travel. But according to agency boss Nicol, the pandemic has exposed a fundamental weakness for brands, and one they are now looking to address.

“One of the things COVID uncovered is the fact that some brands don’t have good, direct one-to-one relationships,” he says. “They felt exposed in terms of retaining customers, keeping them loyal and getting to know them.

“So we’ve had a lot of clients doubling down on CRM and retention activity. They are building their customer base relationships so when things do restart, they can get a jumpstart because they’ve invested in the direct relationship with consumers.

“The big brand piece can come in over that to drive inspiration. At the moment however, travel inspiration is an expensive activity given how little we can travel.”

For other sectors of the industry, the pandemic has thrown up other, significant challenges. In the retail space, Flight Centre was not only unable to generate any revenue but was compelled to give money back to consumers – almost $1 billion of it.

“We went dark when COVID kicked in. We literally stopped all advertising in every region,” global head of brand and marketing Darren Wright tells Mumbrella. “There was nothing we could sell and most of our time and effort was spent appeasing a fairly angry and aggressive customer looking for refunds.

“When things started to move we took a zero-budget approach and used owned, borrowed or stolen channels to get into the marketplace.”

In a sign of the financially-strapped times, Flight Centre cut its marketing budget from $200 million to a paltry $3 million and now operates a 60-strong marketing team. Pre-COVID it was 300.

Given those numbers, Wright stresses it will only turn to above-the-line media that can truly demonstrate its worth.

“Our view is that we don’t actually need a larger team, I believe we can hold that level by selecting the right external resources and agencies,” Wright says. “I also believe it will clean up the channel mix. Digital playing at the conversion end of the funnel is great because we know that $1 can earn us $1.10. But finding the right above-the-line channels that actually presents a good return on investment is paramount now. It actually stress tests these channels and makes them justify themselves more.”

Wright, who last month launched a Flight Centre brand refresh aimed at a younger audience, said it is taking a more aggressive approach to experiences, a strategy reflected in its new strapline “experience our experience”.

Like his contemporaries, Wright says the current climate has shattered the concept of planning, although marketing collateral is ready the moment borders re-open.

He also suggested consumers will look for “truth” in advertising and less “puffery”.

“We’re trying to crystal ball which is almost impossible but we have the machine ready to turn on whenever we get a whisper of borders re-opening,” he says.

“From what I can see from customer sentiment, they’re looking for value rather than price, price, price. There’s a greater consideration around experiences rather than cheap deal fly and flop holidays.

“I think this has tidied up a certain amount of noise in the market and there’s a little more truth in advertising that is coming through.”

Another brand campaign ready to role is Tourism Fiji, a campaign created by The Hallway.

While acknowledging the need to instil confidence in a post-Covid traveller, the agency’s founder, Jules Hall, says the “number one job of advertising is to create the mental availability for the destination”.

“Certainly health and safety and booking flexibility messaging needs to be communicated in the campaign hierarchy, but when people begin to ask themselves where should we go, they’ve firstly got to be able to recall the destination,” he says. “Then they can compare hygiene protocols, safety and whether borders are stable.

“You can’t communicate everything in one ad or you’ll risk compromising the impact and the message, and therefore the mental availability.”

For the time being however, the Tourism Fiji campaign, like so many others, will remain on the shelf, waiting for the borders to reopen.

With any luck, that may happen sooner rather than later, and normality will return to a weary industry.

But no one is holding their breath.


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